Tag Archives: Gunnar Gunnarsson

Going Deep in Iceland

At a certain point, you see with your chest, not with your eyes. Here with the tide rushing out at Kolgrafarfjörður at sundown around 2:30 pm on the shortest day, the light might be in the air, but it’s really in the water, which you “see” with its substance.

In other words, light is a substance as well, which this photograph, which can only capture the energy within it, can only hint at. You have to be there, because only a body can experience this.  However, renting a car at Harpa at 10 a.m. and rushing out to Snæfellsnes, and back to Reykjavik in time for a quick snack and the 8 pm. Northern Lights Bus Tour will only keep you in the light’s energy. You won’t become the sea. There’s not just one Iceland in the same place at the same time. And it’s not just the sea. It’s the Earth as well, here from Ríf four days later, looking up to the glacier.

I think this is what Gunnar Gunnarsson meant in his 1936 essay “Thoughts on Nordic Fate” (Nordische Schicksalsgedanke), when he spoke of salvation — not in the modern sense of rescue through Christ but in an older sense, of the healing of separation. His answer was to go home to Iceland, but I’m not sure it has accepted him yet.

Or  has  it?

Winter Dawn in Kolgrafarfjörður

On his reading tour through wartime Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1940, Gunnar Gunnarsson said that the darkness of Iceland was as much the soul of Icelanders as the long days of summer light. It was a statement meant for a Nazi audience and expressed what he saw as the one common point between Nazi culture (his main audience) and his own: a belief that people sprang from the land and represented its highest aspirations. In Iceland’s case, that also means (says Gunnar) from the darkness and the light, presumably in how they are caught by the land. It was a peculiarly pre-modern idea expressed at the height of the modernist period. Now that we all live in a post-modern era, in which everything is an image or a belief, Gunnar’s expression appears a little strange, if not repugnant, or it would, if the light and the darkness were not still there, however he expressed them in that troubled time. This is a troubled time, too, so it might be interesting to look at what he saw as an answer to these troubles: darkness and light, that are the same when viewed through a human eye.

Rather than being a Nazi view, that is, at heart, a profoundly Christian one, in a specifically Icelandic sense, for in Iceland Christianity made only a light break between Norse and Christian belief, uniting them through a common ethical ground. Ground like the image of Kolgrafarfjörður at first light on Christmas Eve Day above. Gunnar was buried in a Catholic cemetery on Viðey, to be with his wife, but the impulse within this ethical ground remains profoundly Lutheran. It represents a choice. It gives human nature as the ground in which this choice is made, ground that is formed by experience with scenes like the one above and so scarcely separable from them. Gunnar told the Germans that no-one but a child born to Iceland could act rightly in its landscape. It is the kind of statement most often made about language — that a native speaker of a language never makes a mistake in it, while a non-native speaker must always follow set rules, lest a mistake be made and nonsense result.  This then, is Gunnar’s language:

If you see mountains only, look again. Better yet, go there in the winter, when you are a body among other bodies (non-human ones) there, in a syntax in which you are but one word, one through which human language comes.

Gathering the Living and the Dead

When the winds reach 125 kilometres per hour, I tell ya, the walls of a graveyard are welcome shelter.

The black church at Buðir still has the power to draw people to it, even though its town pretty much vanished long ago.

When you’re out there in the midwinter wind, it’s pretty clear, though, that the church is an expression of Budir, not Budir an expression of the church.

In other words, here under the volcano (cloaked in fog of its own making), in a lava field blown with dunes of stinging orange sand, the broken bits of old scallop shells, in a wind the volcano sends out to sea like a searchlight, there is power and light that exceed our understanding.

It is good to honour them.

It is good to remember that the living have been given their life by the dead. Even our words, even these words, are the work of ancestral voices meeting the world, often in winds so strong you don’t breathe the air, it breathes you. (I am not writing these words. My ancestors are. That kind of experience. To them, I am a mouth — a door.)

Gunnar wrote a book about some of this, called Vikikvaki, a story of the dead coming to life and dancing on New Year’s Eve.

He meant Iceland.

(The wind has passed now in the mid-day solstice light)

The dead meant life. They meant the wind. It is good to enter these forces. It is also vital to have shelter.

Gunnar Gunnarsson, Peter Handke, and the Nobel Prize

Think of it. Peter Handke, perhaps the greatest writer of the last fifty years…

peter handke

No, not in translation, but in his native German, won the prize that eluded Gunnar Gunnarsson…

… but has been spat upon for his politics, with many saying he should be stripped of his prize for his support of Serbia in the Bosnian War. Gunnar fell into the same kind of mess. In his case, he met with Hitler on the day Hitler was planning the invasion of Norway and Denmark. Gunnar had just completed a 40 city reading tour in the German Reich, including its new European colonies. In Gunnar’s case, his politics were too right wing to remain popular. The charge was laid against him that he knew of the invasion but didn’t warn anyone. Well, we’ll never know, but we do know that he invented a kind of writing that attempted to be relevant to all combatants, a mix of biography, nonfiction, fiction and fairytale. It didn’t work, but it is more than anyone else did, and is a model of possibility. His works, Inseln im Großen Meer, The Black Cliffs, Vikivaki, “Our Land”, and Advent (still in print), are a model of what we could still achieve. Now Handke has done it again, with a series of books showing how it is possible to confront right wing politics without losing one’s individuality and humanity — pressing issues for modern Europe, and no doubt why the Nobel Academy awarded him the prize — is being dismissed for his politics. What a shame to have a second guide stripped from us. They don’t come often. I’m not saying that Milosevic was not a war criminal. I’m saying that Handke showed us a path for displaced persons, a path of multilevel emotional sensitivity that included history but not its making. There’s more than one form of humanism. Did both men make huge mistakes? Yes. The choice is before us: to dismiss them for the mistakes, or to accept them as brothers for their achievements, achievements we need.

Source

Rejecting the achievements of these writers diminishes us. The time for a new one to come with the same message appears to be about fifty years.

Gunnar Gunnarsson and Lichen Poetry: the Price of Literacy

In 1907, Gunnar Gunnarsson left this.Under the spell of universal education and the promise made to all country boys that through book literacy they could be a part of the world of power, Gunnar Gunnarsson accepted a scholarship to study at the Askov School in Denmark. It ran a program for colonial boys, as a means of building belief in a unified Scandinavian country, the United States of Scandinavia, so to speak. It seemed a better idea than conquest by the Germans (again) or the violent revolutions of Nationalism that were, even then, sweeping through Europe, and which would bring their tragic consequences in 1914, the year the world ended. All that is repeating itself in the struggles between nationalism, liberalism, immigration and military alliance that is shaking Europe (and the world) right now, so it’s timely to look at what Gunnar left. Especially since the power he sought was denied, because it was always a ruse. What he left, as I said above, is this.

This is lichen, the little lick, the little læk or stream, or as we put it in English today, the little lake where the streams gather (and where we can come to lick. In fact, we are drawn to do so by a shared nature across states of be-ing.) It is a little world, or the big one in miniature.

In Gunnar’s Iceland, the one his education took him from, it was also an art form: a form of poetry.

Intriguingly, it was not written by humans; only found and read by them.

I suspect that the reading was not a matter of words, or at least the kind that appear in books.

It’s been 112 years now. The poetry is still here.


The whole literary discussion, now much out-dated, as to whether poetry is given or created by poets, replaced this art form. The readers of it knew the answer.

It still looks very fine.

~

Images from Starmyri.

Global Culture and Gunnar Gunnarsson

When faced with mysteries, like this troll on Reykjanes …

… the global human sees its emotions instead.

The Bridge Between the Continents, Reykjanes, Iceland

Some premeditation is involved. That’s what Pinterest is for.

It’s not original, but it’s a fun bit of colonization. What would Homus Globalus do, after all, if it saw the ogre climb her staircase above Gunnar’s birth house in the Lagarfljót?

Laugh, no doubt. Should we laugh about Icelanders in their own country? The question is absurd to people who would do this:

The global human loves humans and sees them as beneficial additions to all environments. Icelanders, being isolated island people, actually invited them in. This is the same bind that drove Gunnar to Denmark in 1907, to become a published writer, and then saw him ostracized in the 1930s, because he had published in Danish. There are always these double-binds. That’s the human condition. Even in Iceland. We should be gentle on ourselves.

Iceland Speaks Through Her Black Sand Beaches

At the mouth of the Sellfljót, Iceland speaks.

Here, human activity, such as a lost fishing float, is a glaring addition to her conversation, but remains dwarfed by it.

These beaches are at the end of a 30-kilometre-road and a two hour walk, so they feature in few guide books. We can shift our point of view and eliminate human dominance in the image, but looking out to sea…

… or even climb the hill to … and look from there.

It is a different story at the mouth of the Jökullsá, just south of the famed glacial lagoon. They are in all the guide books, just footsteps away from the madness of the Ring Road.

Whether the beach is really black is questionable, but, still, it’s lovely. The river has built an estuary over the last couple years, and seals have moved in. Note how the human story now dominates: the image has directionality and an object, which is more dominant than Iceland and the Atlantic themselves. It’s not just a matter of a camera’s point of view. Even if we sweep up an even larger pile of fishing garbage on the Sellfljót…

… Iceland dominates, and the human story remains foreign and intrusive, despite its beauty (which is largely in the way it catches the light.) These effects are not created. by the light, either. Back on Diamond Beach, the light reveals a story of humans on the hunt, either for seals or icebergs…

… while on the Heraðssandur…

… the light and the land speak. Still, it might be that nature and humans can coexist…

… and it might be that putting nature to work, such as at the aluminum smelter on an old farm in Reyðarfjörður …

Sómastaðir

The oldest stone house in Iceland, rebuilt by Alcoa, and now a National Historic Site.

… is a comfortable form of coexistence as well, but it might not. As an example, just consider that the hydroelectric dam in the Highlands that powers the Alcoa plant at Sómastaðagerði  above required the diversion of Jöklá into the Jökullsá, and the subsequent combination of both rivers on the Heraðssandur (below) to prevent flooding, all funded by the industrial project but no doubt predating it by many centuries.

The transformation of a continually-shifting pair of estuaries into a stable beach system is a great feat of civil engineering. If you want black sand in Iceland, here it is.

However, the sand, and the shifting estuary system has only moved further south. Here you can find exquisite black sand beaches framing lagoons north of Höfn, in the Fjörur sandspit in  Álftafjörður, or on the Hvalsnesfjara in Lónsvik in Lónfjörður, cutting historically-significant and productive farms off from the sea.

The people whose ancestors have been here for 1100 years might be furious, but the resulting black sand beaches are beautiful. The madness of the Ring Road is only metres away, but is strong enough to keep people off. Not so the Atlantic, though. It is devouring the beach even as it builds it up.


That’s just the thing, though. Back at the Glacial Lagoon, the destruction is also a dominant force. Have a look:

Even if you pull the humans and their attempts to view nature free of themselves away from the picture, what remains is destruction, because the lagoon, the river, these icebergs and the black sands of Diamond Beach are all a result of a dying glacier, melting under climate change. Nature, this is not, but what nature looks like as it corrects an industrial intervention. Of course, at that other great black sand beach, Dritvík, you can ignore the ogres, if you like, and even the ruins of Iceland’s great fishing camp, home to 500 men every summer…

 

… and if you forego that trail because no-one mentioned it, and the tourbus took you to the trailhead at Djupalón, you can forego the ogre there, too, if you like, and enjoy the force of the water on the black sand.

You wouldn’t be thinking like Iceland, though, nor would you in the Hvalfjörður, where the black sand beach is actually the fighter plane airbase that protected the Allied fleet during World War II…

The point is, these black sand beaches are exquisitely beautiful, but it’s best not to bring one’s preconceptions of nature to them. Most of us come from countries and cultures in which history is represented in buildings and human social activity. It’s no different on Iceland, just that here the buildings are made of sand and the human social activity is usually done in conversation with the sand. When you walk those beaches, you are talking with powerful creative and destructive forces. Gunnar wrote about this in his great novel “The Shore of Life,”

which he wrote as a cry of pain after the Battle of the Somme. It is as great a human story as Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,”

but one that gets far deeper into the soul of the land, right where it battles with the sea.

Diamond Beach

This is the land’s story.

 

Gunnar and the Elves of Vopnafjörður

In downtown Vopnafjörður, right across from the slaughterhouse, there’s a fine elf hill. Gunnar Gunnarsson grew up in this neighbourhood. He would have seen this hill everyday, and no doubt climbed it often.

Now, it might be hard to visit a “real” elf here (at any rate, it’s out of your control), but you can visit Gunnar.

He has flowers and birds, and place for you to sit down.

This is a pre-Happy-Camper kind of Icelandic travel. There are a lot of Icelanders honours with their very own copper head in the trees. To visit them is a kind of pilgrimage.

Hi, Gunnar.

Of Seals and Men

Notice how little attention the seals are paying to either global warming or humans attracted to global warming and seals.

There’s a lovely crowd of them off of the mouth of the glacial river flowing out of the glacial lagoon these days, but, to tell the truth, if you go the the Selfljót and look for them in the estuary at the tide change you will have a lot more fun, even if you don’t see a single one.

This was the Iceland that Gunnar left for Denmark, and the one he returned to when war threatened the world. It’s still there, if you look for it, because even if Gunnar didn’t find it again, and you aren’t likely to, either, with a little luck the search will be the finding. Iceland will change you, if you work at it.